Friday, February 9, 2024

New Book Update - Thirty Years of Adventures in Search of the Past

Design work has been completed for my upcoming book Thirty Years of Adventures in Search of the Past: The Outer Hebrides. The book tells the stories of adventures on forty islands of the Outer Hebrides and includes over 150 colour photos. The Islands book Trust is aiming for publication in May, and book launches will be held on Lewis and/or Harris. The venues and dates have not been set. As soon as they are I will update this page.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

September 2024 Cruise

This coming September I will have the privilege of guiding another cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge. Built in 1963, Hjalmar Bjørge served for thirty-three years as a rescue ship for the Norwegian fishing fleet. Seventy-five feet long, and twenty wide, this ninety-ton powerhouse, with her name proudly emblazoned in bold, chrome letters on the wheelhouse, draws an appreciative eye from all who see her. When it comes to adventure cruising, safety, and stability you'll find no finer ship for a Hebridean cruise.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my first voyage on Hjalmar Bjorge. On that journey so long ago, we visited Taransay, Scarp, St Kilda, Ceann Ear of the Monachs, and Mingulay. The stories of those island visits, along with many other adventures on Hjalmar Bjorge, are included in my book Thirty Years of Adventures in Search of the Past: The Outer Hebrides. The book recounts voyages to forty Hebridean islands and is due to be published by the Islands Book Trust this spring. Information on the book launch events will be available shortly.

On the September trip we are aiming to make an orbit around the Uists to set foot on several islands in the Sound of Harris, the Monach Isles, and the Barra Isles. On the way back to Oban we are also planning a full day ashore on Rum. As always, the weather and sea-state will have the final say on where we can go. As it happens, a partial lunar eclipse will occur during the cruise. If the sky is clear, it should be visible from the ship early on the morning of Sept 18.

Currently, four of the six cabins have been booked. If you are interested, more information can be found at the following link:

Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Glen Rosa Circuit - Arran

The route into the Arran hills started at Glenrosa Campsite. It was a deceptively easy start, the boot-beaten path gradually ascending along the winding Glenrosa Water. I’d visited Holy Island the day before, and was setting out to hike the Glen Rosa circuit, hoping to find a view of Holy Island from the 2000-foot horseshoe ridge between Cir Mhòr and A’ Chir.

After three miles, I came to a fork in the path. A right turn led to 'The Saddle', the way to climb Goatfell or carry on through to Glen Sannox. The 2,866-foot summit of Goatfell was hidden in clouds—there’d be no views there—so I took the left fork. It made a steady, steep climb, rising 1400 feet over one mile, that led through the heart of Fionn Coire to the high ridge between the peaks of Cir Mhòr and A’ Chir.

I was then faced with a difficult choice. A right turn led to Cir Mhòr (2600 ft), via the Rosa Pinnacle, and then on to Caisteal Abhail and Ceum na Caillich, the Witch’s Step. In addition to the Witch’s Step, and nearby Broomstick Ridge, there are dozens of Arran place names guaranteed to make a climber drool: Pagoda Ridge, Portcullis Buttress, Rosa Slabs, the Bastion, the Rosetta Stone, and the Devil’s Punchbowl. If you fail to climb any of those enticing temptations, you can always settle for Consolation Tor.

I needed to be back at the road in three hours to meet my wife, so I turned left to follow an exhilaratingly airy ridge-top path to the south. Five minutes later, at an elevation of 2000 feet, the path split, and another decision had to be made. The left fork made a challenging, 300-foot knife-edge climb to the summit of A’ Chir. I was beat in the heat—it was a sweltering, 80-degree July day (27 deg C)—and I’d already climbed 1800 feet in over six miles. It was an easy decision for someone hiking on their own. I took the right fork that led around the west shoulder of A’ Chir. 

In a matter of minutes, 300 feet of hard-earned altitude was lost, as the trail dropped down dusty, sunbaked slabs of granite, before climbing steeply to Bealach an Fhir-bhogha, Bowman’s Pass. Deer were once driven through this narrow pass, where archers lying in wait would pick them off as they stampeded through.

The view was spectacular; the massive bowl of Coire Daingean lay at my feet, dropping 1600 feet to the headwaters of Glenrosa Water. The clouds had thinned over the past hour, and the summit of Goatfell looked clear and inviting. I was beginning to regret my decision not to climb it, when something else impressive caught my eye—the very thing I’d come here to see—Holy Island rising from the blue-green waters of the Firth.

According to the map, there is a route from Bowman’s Pass down to Glen Rosa. But nary a path was to be seen, just dusty slopes, far too steep to safely descend. But 200 feet farther, just beyond the pass where archers once laid in wait, I came across a trail that dropped to the summit of Beinn a’ Chliabhain, Creel Mountain (2140 ft).

I did not want to leave the airy heights, but the time had come to start down. The heavenly ridge path to Beinn a’ Chliabhain led to another high ridge above Coire a’ Bhradain, Salmon Corry. Five hundred feet below, like veins leading to a heart, a half-dozen streams could be seen trickling down the corry; the headwaters of the salmon-filled river of Garbh Allt.

It was a joy to be walking downhill (my favourite direction). And so, happy as a midge at a nude beach, I descended to Cnoc Breac, Trout Hill. You may have noticed by now that there are a lot of fishy names on Arran. I’m surprised there’s no Pike’s Peak, but there is a hill called An Tunna; a name that commemorates an event back in the days of Cuchulain, when a lost bluefin, thinking it was a salmon, swam up Glenrosa Water trying to spawn. (Or so I read in Wikipedia.)

From Cnoc Breac, the terrain gradually transitioned from rock to heather and grass, as it descended to the cascading waters of Garbh Allt. At 6 pm the Glen Rosa campsite came into view, where my wife had dropped me six hours earlier. She wasn’t there - good help is hard to find. Fifteen minutes later, she showed up with a cold can of beer. (Oh me, of little faith.)

Arand na n-aighedh n-imdha, tadall fairge re a formna,
ailén a m-biadhta buidhni, druimne a n-dergthar gái gorma.
Arran blessed with stags, encircled by the sea,
Island that fed hosts, where the black spears turn crimson.

From ‘Acallamh na Senórach’, Tales of the Elders of Ireland, 12th century, author unknown
Translation from ‘A New Translation by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe’, Oxford University Press

Thursday, December 14, 2023

New Book and a Cruise

You may have noticed I have been neglecting the blog for a few months. The reason is that I've been preoccupied with completing my next book: Thirty Years of Adventures in Search of the Past: The Outer Hebrides. Book design is underway, with publication by the Islands Book Trust tentatively set for May of 2024. As part of promoting the book, I will be guiding a cruise on the ship Hjalmar Bjorge, operated by Hebridean Adventures. As with the previous books, this one includes several stories that stem from experiences aboard Hjalmar Bjorge, both as a guide and a paying guest. The following link will take you to the Hebridean Adventures website that describes the cruise.

The first of the photos below is of Dun Shanndraigh on the island of Sandray, one of the historical sites we hope to explore.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Twilight on Taransay

There is something special about an early morning, or early evening landing, on a deserted island. The slanting rays of the sun give the terrain an added dimension of depth and color.  

Adding to the uniqueness is that these shore trips, before breakfast, or after dinner, are few and far between. I last wrote of such an experience in 2019, when during a trip down the west of Ireland we went ashore for an early morning walk on Iniskea North. (You can see those photos on the November 7, 2019 post.)

And so, on a Hebridean cruise in June, I was delighted when the skipper offered up an evening stroll on Taransay. Some of these photos show the ruin of the nineteenth century Taigh Geal na h-Uidhe, the white house of Uidhe. Originally two-storeys high, with a roof of Ballachulish slate, the house was built for John MacDonald, the Taransay tacksman in the nineteenth century. The structure turned out to be unstable, so the gables were knocked down, and the slates taken for use on a building in Tarbert.

The shell of the house still stands in the form of a single-storey, tin-roofed bothy, refurbished by the Mountain Bothies Association in the 1980s. (They no longer maintain the bothy.) Many years had passed since I last entered the bothy. On that previous visit in 2011, there was a two-burner propane stove sitting atop a slim table and a half dozen fishnet hammocks hung from the rafters. There were several fishing crates stacked in the cooking area, each holding an assortment of worn utensils. Except for two items, an adjacent shelf was bare. The two items it proudly held were a crusty salt shaker and a faded jar of Marmite. Stamped on the Marmite label was EXP: 7/2008. I've never been a Marmite fan, let alone when it's been fermenting for three years.

When I entered the bothy in June I found it to be a sad wreck, The door was gone, and the inside was a complete mess. But, if you wanted to spend the night, the fishnet hammocks were still there.

Before returning to the ship, I paid a visit to St Taran's cross. The incised cross on the standing stone has faded over the years, but you can still make it out. It was a delight to see in in the twilight, but I will never forget how it looked on a sunny afternoon, twenty years ago (last photo).

Saturday, June 24, 2023

A Shot of Rum

Two weeks ago I had a few hours of shore leave on Rum. Not enough time to do much. But time enough to do something exciting. After passing in front of the sad-looking and fenced-off Kinloch Castle, I made my way to the bridge over the Kinloch River. Once over the bridge, a turn to the left led to the start of the North Nature Trail. A thousand feet later, at an elevation of 100 feet, the trail made a hard left turn to the west. It was time to leave the easy track and dive into the hard wilderness.

Hard wilderness may seem an exaggeration. But it was hard, it was wild, with seemingly endless stretches of three-foot-tall hummocks of grass. Each hummock hid one of three things: a deep hole, a patch of swamp, or a stream. It was slow going, made easier now and then by deer trails. How in the hell deer ran along these paths without plunging into a hole and breaking a leg is a mystery.

It was a swelteringly hot day. Whenever I stopped to cool off the midges and clegs showed up in force, so the respites were short. The despairing challenge of the hummocks was interspersed with sections of blessedly shaded woodland. But it was not much of a blessing, as it required multiple detours around impassable swaths of trees. Here and there dead stumps rose from the ground. Whenever I grabbed one for support it crumbled to dust. Dead and dried. I felt dead and dried. I was also worried about ticks, so avoided sitting on the ground to rest, as I ascended eastward across the shoulder of Meall a’ Ghoirtein.

A half-hour later, I reached the tree line at an elevation of 300 feet. The GPS indicated I had another 200 feet to climb and a quarter mile of terrain to cross to reach my destination. Twenty minutes later I noticed a structure built upon a strange, arch-shaped boulder. The boulder was ten feet by five, and the structure was what I’d been searching for: an intact beehive cell, eight feet high at its centre.

There are nearly 400 shieling huts on Rum, and over a hundred of them were circular cells. Only about three of the beehive type are still intact, and this cell, high on the slopes above Kinloch Castle, is one of them. It was a stunning location, with a wide view over the mouth of Loch Scresort. Most of Eigg could also be seen, with the high prow of An Sgùrr pointing skyward.

There was a low, lintelled entrance on the east side of the cell. Ticks be damned, I crawled inside. The interior was blissfully cool, and mysteriously shielded from the barrage of persistent midges. The dome was not perfectly built, and several gaps allowed shafts of sunlight to illuminate the interior.

The floor was covered with a thick layer of dried thatch, which would make it a comfortable place to nap. Large, flat stones lay under the thatch; stones that strangely clanked when any pressure was applied, hinting that there may be storage chambers below them. I was beat in the heat and had limited time, so was not in the mood to nap or look under the stones.

The cell was once part of a shieling village, and the ruins of several other structures dotted the nearby hillside. It seemed like an odd place for shielings, on the steeply sloping ground below Meall a’ Ghoirtein. But the hill’s name hints at why the settlement was here, as it roughly translates to the Hill of Cultivation (OS Name Book, Argyll Vol. 63, p.67). It was a beautiful spot, with an open view over Loch Scresort. The loch was as calm as a mill pond, and along with several sailing yachts I could see our ship, Hjalmar Bjorge, lying at anchor. 

The reinforcements the midges had called for then showed up in force. It was time to "run away, run away". On the way back to the pier I wandered around the fenced-off Kinloch Castle. On its porch lay several mouldering benches. The sight of one of them took me back to another sunny day, twenty-six years before. It was 1997, and my wife and I had just returned from the fifteen-mile round-trip walk to see the mausoleum at Harris. We were staying in the ‘Sir William Bass’ bedroom on the southwest corner of the castle’s top floor. Before going in to freshen up, with ankles afire from the long, stony walk, we rested on a white bench beside the main entrance. (The following photo is from 1997.)

Over a quarter-century had passed since that day of memory. The bench was now faded and cracked, as was the castle.

I walked around to peer up at the windows of the turreted Bass Bedroom and wondered what it looked like today—probably faded and cracked. Plans are afoot to renovate the castle. I hope they succeed. I’d like to bring Shawna back to Rum someday to stay, once again, in that grand bedroom, before I, too, am faded and cracked.

Note: My thanks to John Love for the information on the location of the cell.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Beehive of Both a' Ghriosamul - A Message in a Bottle

In section 2.6.2 of Beehive Dwellings of the Hebrides I wrote about a visit to the remote cell at Both a' Ghriosamul. It lies two miles east of Kinlochresort and requires a dedicated effort to reach. I visited the cell on May 21, 2019, and after crawling into it I found a couple of old, empty bottles. One had once held whisky, and the other looked to have been for something medicinal.

It was a blazing hot day, and so I sheltered from the sun inside the cell for a half-hour. As I did, I caught up on my journal, and since the pen was at hand, decided to leave a note for the next visitor. I tore a blank page from the back of the journal, wrote a few lines, then shoved it into the medicine bottle. After crawling out of the cell I made my way back to my campsite at Airigh an t-Sluic.

I had forgotten all about the note I wrote in 2019 until I received an e-mail on May 21, 2023: four years to the day from when I left it in the cell. The message was from Anna Mackenzie of Lewis who, along with her friend Murdo Macleod, were using my book to find the cell. On entering it they discovered my message in a bottle, and kindly sent me this photo of a note from the past.

I am delighted that the book is inspiring people to seek out these mostly forgotten cells. I would love to hear from anyone else who has done that.